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Overview of Infectious Diseases

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Infectious diseases play a significant part in worldwide occurrences of occupational disease in HCWs. Since reporting procedures vary from country to country, and since diseases considered job-related in one country may be classified as non-occupational elsewhere, accurate data concerning their frequency and their proportion of the overall number of occupational diseases among HCWs are difficult to obtain. The proportions range from about 10% in Sweden (Lagerlöf and Broberg 1989), to about 33% in Germany (BGW 1993) and nearly 40% in France (Estryn-Béhar 1991).

The prevalence of infectious diseases is directly related to the efficacy of preventive measures such as vaccines and post-exposure prophylaxis. For example, during the 1980s in France, the proportion of all viral hepatitides fell to 12.7% of its original level thanks to the introduction of vaccination against hepatitis B (Estryn-Béhar 1991). This was noted even before hepatitis A vaccine became available.

Similarly, it may be presumed that, with the declining immunization rates in many countries (e.g., in the Russian Federation and Ukraine in the former Soviet Union during 1994-1995), cases of diphtheria and poliomyelitis among HCWs will increase.

Finally, occasional infections with streptococci, staphylococci and Salmonella typhi are being reported among health care workers.

Epidemiological Studies

The following infectious diseases—listed in order of frequency—are the most important in worldwide occurrences of occupational infectious diseases in health care workers:

  • hepatitis B
  • tuberculosis
  • hepatitis C
  • hepatitis A
  • hepatitis, non A-E.


Also important are the following (not in order of frequency):

  • varicella
  • measles
  • mumps
  • rubella
  • Ringelröteln (parvovirus B 19 virus infections)
  • hepatitis D
  • EBV hepatitis
  • CMV hepatitis.


It is very doubtful that the very many cases of enteric infection (e.g., salmonella, shigella, etc.) often included in the statistics are, in fact, job-related, since these infections are transmitted faecally/orally as a rule.

Much data is available concerning the epidemiological significance of these job-related infections mostly in relation to hepatitis B and its prevention but also in relation to tuberculosis, hepatitis A and hepatitis C. Epidemiological studies have also dealt with measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and Ringenröteln. In using them, however, care must be taken to distinguish between incidence studies (e.g., determination of annual hepatitis B infection rates), sero-epidemiological prevalence studies and other types of prevalence studies (e.g., tuberculin tests).

Hepatitis B

The risk of hepatitis B infections, which are primarily transmitted through contact with blood during needlestick injuries, among HCWs, depends on the frequency of this disease in the population they serve. In northern, central and western Europe, Australia and North America it is found in about 2% of the population. It is encountered in about 7% of the population in southern and south-eastern Europe and most parts of Asia. In Africa, the northern parts of South America and in eastern and south-eastern Asia, rates as high as 20% have been observed (Hollinger 1990).

A Belgian study found that 500 HCWs in northern Europe became infected with hepatitis B each year while the figure for southern Europe was 5,000 (Van Damme and Tormanns 1993). The authors calculated that the annual case rate for western Europe is about 18,200 health care workers. Of these, about 2,275 ultimately develop chronic hepatitis, of whom some 220 will develop cirrhosis of the liver and 44 will develop hepatic carcinoma.

A large study involving 4,218 HCWs in Germany, where about 1% of the population is positive for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), found that the risk of contracting hepatitis B is approximately 2.5 greater among HCWs than in the general population (Hofmann and Berthold 1989). The largest study to date, involving 85,985 HCWs worldwide, demonstrated that those in dialysis, anaesthesiology and dermatology departments were at greatest risk of hepatitis B (Maruna 1990).

A commonly overlooked source of concern is the HCW who has a chronic hepatitis B infection. More than 100 instances have been recorded worldwide in which the source of the infection was not the patient but the doctor. The most spectacular instance was the Swiss doctor who infected 41 patients (Grob et al. 1987).

While the most important mechanism for transmitting the hepatitis B virus is an injury by a blood-contaminated needle (Hofmann and Berthold 1989), the virus has been detected in a number of other body fluids (e.g., male semen, vaginal secretions, cerebrospinal fluid and pleural exudate) (CDC 1989).


In most countries around the world, tuberculosis continues to rank first or second in importance of work-related infections among HCWs (see the article “Tuberculosis prevention, control and surveillance”). Many studies have demonstrated that although the risk is present throughout the professional life, it is greatest during the period of training. For example, a Canadian study in the 1970s demonstrated the tuberculosis rate among female nurses to be double that of women in other professions (Burhill et al. 1985). And, in Germany, where the tuberculosis incidence ranges around 18 per 100,000 for the general population, it is about 26 per 100,000 among health care workers (BGW 1993).

A more accurate estimate of the risk of tuberculosis may be obtained from epidemiological studies based on the tuberculin test. A positive reaction is an indicator of infection by Mycobacterium tuberculosis or other mycobacteria or a prior inoculation with the BCG vaccine. If that inoculation was received 20 or more years earlier, it is presumed that the positive test indicates at least one contact with tubercle bacilli.

Today, tuberculin testing is done by means of the patch test in which the response is read within five to seven days after the application of the “stamp”. A large-scale German study based on such skin tests showed a rate of positives among health professionals that was only moderately higher than that among the general population (Hofmann et al. 1993), but long-range studies demonstrate that a greatly heightened risk of tuberculosis does exist in some areas of health care services.

More recently, anxiety has been generated by the increasing number of cases infected with drug-resistant organisms. This is a matter of particular concern in designing a prophylactic regimen for apparently healthy health care workers whose tuberculin tests “converted” to positive after exposure to patients with tuberculosis.

Hepatitis A

Since the hepatitis A virus is transmitted almost exclusively through faeces, the number of HCWs at risk is substantially smaller than for hepatitis B. An early study conducted in West Berlin showed that paediatric personnel were at greatest risk of this infection (Lange and Masihi 1986). These results were subsequently confirmed by a similar study in Belgium (Van Damme et al. 1989). Similarly, studies in Southwest Germany showed increase risk to nurses, paediatric nurses and cleaning women (Hofmann et al. 1992; Hofmann, Berthold and Wehrle 1992). A study undertaken in Cologne, Germany, revealed no risk to geriatric nurses in contrast to higher prevalence rates among the personnel of child care centres. Another study showed increased risk of hepatitis A among paediatric nurses in Ireland, Germany and France; in the last of these, greater risk was found in workers in psychiatric units treating children and youngsters. Finally, a study of infection rates among handicapped people disclosed higher levels of risk for the patients as well as the workers caring for them (Clemens et al. 1992).

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C, discovered in 1989, like hepatitis B, is primarily transmitted through blood introduced via needle puncture wounds. Until recently, however, data relating to its threat to HCWs have been limited. A 1991 New York study of 456 dentists and 723 controls showed an infection rate of 1.75% among the dentists compared with 0.14% among the controls (Klein et al. 1991). A German research group demonstrated the prevalence of hepatitis C in prisons and attributed it to the large number of intravenous drug users among the inmates (Gaube et al. 1993). An Austrian study found 2.0% of 294 health care personnel to be seropositive for hepatitis C antibodies, a figure thought to be much higher than that among the general population (Hofmann and Kunz 1990). This was confirmed by another study of HCWs conducted in Cologne, Germany (Chriske and Rossa 1991).

A study in Freiburg, Germany, found that contact with handicapped residents of nursing homes, particularly those with infantile cerebral paresis and trisomia-21, patients with haemophilia and those dependent on drugs administered intravenously presented a particular risk of hepatitis C to workers involved in their care. A significantly increased prevalence rate was found in dialysis personnel and the relative risk to all health care workers was estimated to be 2.5% (admittedly calculated from a relatively small sample).

A possible alternative path of infection was demonstrated in 1993 when a case of hepatitis C was shown to have developed after a splash into the eye (Sartori et al. 1993).


Studies of the prevalence of varicella, an illness particularly grave in adults, have consisted of tests for varicella antibodies (anti VZV) conducted in Anglo-Saxon countries. Thus, a seronegative rate of 2.9% was found among 241 hospital employees aged 24 to 62, but the rate was 7.5% for those under the age of 35 (McKinney, Horowitz and Baxtiola 1989). Another study in a paediatric clinic yielded a negative rate of 5% among 2,730 individuals tested in the clinic, but these data become less impressive when it is noted that the serological tests were performed only on persons without a history of having had varicella. A significantly increased risk of varicella infection for paediatric hospital personnel, however, was demonstrated by a study conducted in Freiburg, which found that, in a group of 533 individuals working in hospital care, paediatric hospital care and administration, evidence of varicella immunity was present in 85% of persons younger than 20 years.


In considering risk levels of mumps infection, a distinction must be made between countries in which mumps immunization is mandatory and those in which these inoculations are voluntary. In the former, nearly all children and young people will have been immunized and, therefore, mumps poses little risk to health care workers. In the latter, which includes Germany, cases of mumps are becoming more frequent. As a result of lack of immunity, the complications of mumps have been increasing, particularly among adults. A report of an epidemic in a non-immune Inuit population on St. Laurance Island (located between Siberia and Alaska) demonstrated the frequency of such complications of mumps as orchitis in men, mastitis in women and pancreatitis in both sexes (Philip, Reinhard and Lackman 1959).

Unfortunately, epidemiological data on mumps among HCWs are very sparse. A 1986 study in Germany showed that the rate of mumps immunity among 15 to 10 year-olds was 84% but, with voluntary rather than mandatory inoculation, one may presume that this rate has been declining. A 1994 study involving 774 individuals in Freiburg indicated a significantly increased risk to employees in paediatric hospitals (Hofmann, Sydow and Michaelis 1994).


The situation with measles is similar to that with mumps. Reflecting its high degree of contagiousness, risks of infection among adults emerge as their immunization rates fall. A US study reported an immunity rate of over 99% (Chou, Weil and Arnmow 1986) and two years later 98% of a cohort of 163 nursing students were found to have immunity (Wigand and Grenner 1988). A study in Freiburg yielded rates of 96 to 98% among nurses and paediatric nurses while the rates of immunity among non-medical personnel were only 87 to 90% (Sydow and Hofman 1994). Such data would support a recommendation that immunization be made mandatory for the general population.


Rubella falls between measles and mumps with respect to its contagiousness. Studies have shown that about 10% of HCWs are not immune (Ehrengut and Klett 1981; Sydow and Hofmann 1994) and, therefore, at high risk of infection when exposed. Although generally not a serious illness among adults, rubella may be responsible for devastating effects on the foetus during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy: abortion, stillbirth or congenital defects (see table 1) (South, Sever and Teratogen 1985; Miller, Vurdien and Farrington 1993). Since these may be produced even before the woman knows that she is pregnant and, since health care workers, particularly those in contact with paediatric patients, are likely to be exposed, it is especially important that inoculation be urged (and perhaps even required) for all female health care workers of child-bearing age who are not immune.

Table 1. Congenital abnormalities following rubella infection in pregnancy

Studies by South, Sever and Teratogen (1985)

Week of pregnancy






Deformity rate (%)






Studies by Miller, Vurdien and Farrington (1993)

Week of pregnancy






Deformity rate (%)








During the 1980s and 1990s, HIV seroconversions (i.e., a positive reaction in an individual previously found to have been negative) became a minor occupational risk among HCWs, although clearly not one to be ignored. By early 1994, reports of some 24 reliably documented cases and 35 possible cases were collected in Europe (Pérez et al. 1994) with an additional 43 documented cases and 43 possible cases were reported in the US (CDC 1994a). Unfortunately, except for avoiding needlesticks and other contacts with infected blood or body fluids, there are no effective preventive measures. Some prophylactic regimens for individuals who have been exposed are recommended and described in the article “Prevention of occupational transmission of bloodborne pathogens”.

Other infectious diseases

The other infectious diseases listed earlier in this article have not yet emerged as significant hazards to HCWs either because they have not been recognized and reported or because their epidemiology has not yet been studied. Sporadic reports of single and small clusters of cases suggest that the identification and testing of serological markers should be explored. For example, a 33-month study of typhus conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that 11.2% of all sporadic cases not associated with outbreaks occurred in laboratory workers who had examined stool specimens (Blazer et al. 1980).

The future is clouded by two simultaneous problems: the emergence of new pathogens (e.g., new strains such as hepatitis G and new organisms such as the Ebola virus and the equine morbillivirus recently discovered to be fatal to both horses and humans in Australia) and the continuing development of drug resistance by well-recognized organisms such as the tuberculus bacillus. HCWs are likely to be the first to be systematically exposed. This makes their prompt and accurate identification and the epidemiological study of their patterns of susceptibility and transmission of the utmost importance.

Prevention of Infectious Diseases among Health Care Workers

The first essential in the prevention of infectious disease is the indoctrination of all HCWs, support staff as well as health professionals, in the fact that health care facilities are “hotbeds” of infection with every patient representing a potential risk. This is important not only for those directly involved in diagnostic or therapeutic procedures, but also those who collect and handle blood, faeces and other biological materials and those who come in contact with dressings, linens, dishes and other fomites. In some instances, even breathing the same air may be a possible hazard. Each health care facility, therefore, must develop a detailed procedure manual identifying these potential risks and the steps needed to eliminate, avoid or control them. Then, all personnel must be drilled in following these procedures and monitored to ensure that they are being properly performed. Finally, all failures of these protective measures must be recorded and reported so that revision and/or retraining may be undertaken.

Important secondary measures are the labelling of areas and materials which may be especially infectious and the provision of gloves, gowns, masks, forceps and other protective equipment. Washing the hands with germicidal soap and running water (wherever possible) will not only protect the health care worker but also will minimize the risk of his or her transmitting the infection to co-workers and other patients.

All blood and body fluid specimens or splashes and materials stained with them must be handled as though they are infected. The use of rigid plastic containers for the disposal of needles and other sharp instruments and diligence in the proper disposal of potentially infectious wastes are important preventive measures.

Careful medical histories, serological testing and patch testing should be performed prior to or as soon as health care workers report for duty. Where advisable (and there are no contraindications), appropriate vaccines should be administered (hepatitis B, hepatitis A and rubella appear to be the most important) (see table 2). In any case, seroconversion may indicate an acquired infection and the advisability of prophylactic treatment.

Table 2. Indications for vaccinations in health service employees.



Who should be vaccinated?



In the event of an epidemic, all employees without
demonstrable immunization, beyond this vaccination
recommended, combination vaccine td used, if threat of
epidemic all employees

Hepatitis A


Employees in the paediatric field as well as in infection
stations, in microbiological laboratories and in kitchens,
cleaning women

Hepatitis B


All seronegative employees with possibility of contact
with blood or bodily fluid



Regularly offered to all employees



Seronegative employees in the paediatric field



Seronegative employees in the paediatric field



Seronegative employees in paediatry/midwifery/
ambulances, seronegative women capable of giving



All employees, e.g., those involved in vaccination



Employees in gardening and technical fields obligatory,
offered to all employees, TD combination vaccine used



In all events employees in pulmonology and lung surgery
on a voluntary basis (BCG)


Foetal risks

Seronegative employees in paediatry or at least in the
encephalomyelitis paediatric oncology (protection of
patient) and oncological wards


Prophylactic therapy

In some exposures when it is known that the worker is not immune and has been exposed to a proven or highly suspected risk of infection, prophylactic therapy may be instituted. Especially if the worker presents any evidence of possible immunodeficiency, human immunoglobulin may be administered. Where specific “hyperimmune” serum is available, as in mumps and hepatitis B, it is preferable. In infections which, like hepatitis B, may be slow to develop, or “booster” doses are advisable, as in tetanus, a vaccine may be administered. When vaccines are not available, as in meningococcus infections and plague, prophylactic antibiotics may be used either alone or as a supplement to immune globulin. Prophylactic regimens of other drugs have been developed for tuberculosis and, more recently, for potential HIV infections, as discussed elsewhere in this chapter.



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